Life on the home front during the wars varied greatly depending on where you lived.
For example, due to the limited performance of aircraft during the Great War, air raids were more limited in nature than in WW2, both in intensity and in location; predominantly being London, the south east and the east coast. The extended range of aircraft during WW2 however, allowed aircraft to range far and wide across Britain. There are several regional books that detail this.
Air raid provision during the Great War was less organised, understandably because this was a new phenomenon; whereas having seen the damage and terror inflicted during those bombings, and with the writings of Douhet and H.G.Wells in his novel ‘The Shape of Things To Come’, during the 1930s the Government took air raid provision more seriously, providing public shelters and making household ‘Anderson’ shelters available for people to buy; these being at a reduced price to households of low income.
Meeting people of other races and nationalities was, for many British civilians, particularly those living in rural areas, a new experience.
The town in which I now live saw a parade of U.S. ‘Doughboys’ in 1917, when a troop ship landed, en-route to France. The troops appear to have paraded, then got back on the ship and carried on their journey; perhaps grateful for a few short hours on land. Period newspapers do not seem too surprised by the appearance of the Americans as Barry at the time had a busy port and was used to seeing different races and nationalities.
The people of my hometown, in rural Devon however had a different experience. My mother, for example ‘saw her first black man’ at the age of 14, in 1943/4. “He was very nice. He gave me sweets”, she remembers. This kindly gentleman was almost certainly one of the U.S. 4th Infantry Division, who were billeted around the area as part of the friendly invasion that was Operation Bolero. Strangely; I have now settled where the second wave for Overlord was based, the 28th Infantry Division being billeted just to the west. It must have been strange suddenly being in ‘little America’.
One gentleman in Albourne, Wiltshire said to me at a re-enactment event, ( where I was with about a hundred others in 101st Airbourne uniform, remembering the role the town played in accommodating that unit prior to Operation Neptune), that “When you were here it was the best time of my life. As a child we hung out around your camps, having Jeep rides and you gave us lots of candy. The girls loved your dances”. This was in total contradistinction to my mother’s thoughts of the war; who, to this day says that, “the war ruined my childhood”.
It always intrigues me how witnesses to these events tend to speak to us reenactors in the present tense; despite most of us being far too old for the role we are re-enacting. ( I portray the role of a cameraman, as the oldest one of those on the beaches of Tarawa was 54).
My mother’s older sister clearly had a better wartime experience than my mother; dating Canadian airmen at a local convalescent home, this being similar to that of the girls of rural Wiltshire enjoying the company of fit young G.I.s in neat uniforms. Being paid five times that of equivalent British troops, the Americans seemed more popular with the local women than the men, the phrase, ‘over paid, over sexed, and over HERE’ being oft quoted; perhaps with a little jealousy. The book by Ian Gardner, ‘Tonight we die as men’ details many of the stories of G.I.s in and around Aldbourne, whilst ‘Got any gum chum’, by Millgate portrays a more national picture. ‘A Tourist in Uniform’, by one of my Veteran friends, Art Schmitz, discusses this from the other side; that of a G.I. (With no airbourne training, nor any wish to jump out of a plane, Art ended up in the 101st at Bastogne.)
Of course, this was not without its problems; particularly when G.I.s from the southern states saw coloured soldiers dancing with the more liberal white British women. This led to many unpleasant acts of racist violence. In Barry, S.Wales, where I now live, they introduced ‘white nights’, where the white troops were allowed to go into town, and ‘black nights’. There were many occurrences of racially motivated violence by American troops in Britain during WW2.
On a brighter note, during the Great War, many people first saw a non-white person, (like my mother did in 1943/44). Of particular note were the wounded Indian soldiers convalescing in Brighton, where the Royal Pavilion, Corn Exchange and Dome were all converted into military hospitals. These ‘exotic people’ attracted much attention and became very popular with the locals according to ‘Britain at War’ magazine, who featured an interesting article on them not so long back.
The ‘wars’ placed a strain on medical facilities, both due to the number of civilian casualties, and the prioritisation of medicine to the military. I lost my uncle, who I never knew, to a curable illness simply because the medicine was not available. My mother mentions him every time I discuss this course, questioning why we want to remember the war.
The sheer number of casualties from the Great War overwhelmed the medical provision of the country, leading to the establishment of smaller casualty hospitals in towns all across Britain. These were often staffed by women of the Voluntary Aid Detachment (VADs); women, often well to do, who volunteered to be auxiliary nurses to help with the wounded. Research has found one of these in the town where I live; which housed 600 wounded troops in a church that has now been converted to flats. I wonder whether the occupants know the building’s wartime history? I was intrigued to learn through the readings on PTSD, that Seale Hayne College, Newton Abbott,( an agricultural college near my home town), had once been a military psychiatric hospital, treating cases of ‘shell shock’.
This short piece has simply scratched the surface of what life was like on the home front during the wars; but I have sought to show that during these total wars, everyone played their part; from small children collecting metal for recycling, to upper class ladies donning a uniform and ‘doing their bit’. Word count has dictated that I not mention rationing, nor bombing; but these are in my essay, so that is perhaps best rather than inadvertently plagiarise myself.
Even the Royal Family were not immune, Buckingham Palace being bombed, and the Queen herself being a truck driver in the Territorial Auxiliary Service. Such was life in wartime Britain.